Dieting Vs. Lifestyle Change: Only One Offers Long Term Weight Management

Aug 06, 2022

Dieting vs. lifestyle change: Only one offers long term weight management

(Photo by Markus Spiske)

Are you someone who wants to eat more healthy foods or struggles with weight? You've probably seen that there is an incredible amount of fad diets to choose from. Low-fat, low-carb, gluten-free, keto, paleo, plant-based, carnivore, Atkins, the list goes on.

Why is it so hard to stick with one of these diets? If you fail, was it just the wrong diet? Would you have had better results if you had tried a different one?

This is the first in a series of blogs about the science around why we fail at diets. How to use reasonable goals as a way of developing sustainable changes. And how to build and maintain willpower, especially when it comes to nutrition.

Are you thinking about dieting wrong?

When you hear the word "diet", you probably think of a new food program. One of the many programs trying to sell quick, easy, one-size-fits-all products or methods. One-size-fits-all is nice, but the reality is that they do not fit into most people's lives very easily. These diets fail to acknowledge that foods affect us all differently. What works for someone you know may not work for you.

When you "go on a diet" it is often for a specific amount of time, or to get to a certain weight. When you hit that goal, you may stop and revert back to your normal habits. You may go back to the same weight you started at. So what's the healthiest way to diet?

Dieting the right way

The definition of a diet is something to the effect of, "the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats." You already have a diet. "Going on a diet" is just changing what you normally eat.

That said, try not to look at dieting as only changing the kinds of foods that you eat. Take everything else in your life into account. All these factors can affect the decisions that you make about food. Does your job only allow for enough time to eat fast food in your car? Are you able to make time for exercise? Are you getting enough sleep?

If you really want to do something that works, then what you need is a lifestyle change. Good sleep and regular exercise will give you motivation to make good decisions about food. Plan ahead to make this process as easy as possible. Take a deliberate and informed approach to create your new normal. 

All-or-nothing vs. gradual change

Do you ease yourself into a new diet, or do you just start doing things differently on a set day? When you jump in, you have to resist old behavior which can take a little bit of your willpower. 

When you try to adopt a rigid, all-or-nothing approach to dieting, you can set yourself up for failure. Especially if the diet centers around avoiding the foods that you love the most. This is because it can be tempting to go ahead and fail so that you can return to the things that you enjoy. But, now you have attached the shame of failure to what you like.[199]

Maybe you have a sweet tooth, so you decide that you are going to cut out foods that are high in refined sugars. But all your favorite foods have refined sugars in them. Trying to do this cold turkey is going to sap your willpower very quickly.[201] It's the same as trying to change too many habits all at once.

Willpower is like a gas tank. If you keep the pedal mashed down all day, you are going to run out and burn out. Running out of self-control during a diet is when we fail. Even a very disciplined person only has so much willpower in a day.

Realistic expectations

It's important to keep things in perspective. Unrealistic expectations can set you up for failure. What you want is to find a healthy diet and lifestyle that you can be comfortable with everyday. 

Many specialty weight loss diets can result in rapid loss for a short period of time. But they are often too restrictive to be realistic for long term weight maintenance. The same can be said if you're trying to gain weight in a healthy way. Eating until you're uncomfortable is not healthy, but eating a little bit more every day is a more reasonable ask. 

A realistic approach should be gradual and flexible. If you want lasting results, you shouldn't completely deny yourself of something you enjoy.[203] If the goal is to be healthier and happier, a diet that makes you miserable or leaves you feeling unsatisfied isn't going to last. 

Finding an everyday diet that fits your needs may take some trial and error. You should always consult with your doctor before making any drastic changes.

A new lifestyle

Take a gradual and determined approach toward changing your eating habits. It's likely going to require changes in every aspect of your life. You may need to learn more methods for managing stress. You may need to get better, more restful sleep to help boost your willpower. 

You might have to schedule time to cook healthy meals, or prepare food to take with you to work. Studies suggest that people who cook for themselves eat healthier meals. They tend to eat fewer fats, sugars, and salt than people who do not cook.[90]

It's difficult to create change in your life that will last without changing how you are living that life. Your decisions and self-control are connected to everything that you do. If you're trying to alter your diet, make good changes in other parts of your life. 

You may see that every good choice you make now, gives you more energy to make more good choices later.

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